Inconceivably, Niki and I just celebrated twenty-five years of marriage. We got married at the young (too young in my opinion) age of nineteen. When we said our vows, we had no idea what marriage entailed; we were in love, and that was all that mattered. Consequently, the first many years of marriage were challenging and, dare I say, even tumultuous.
I went into the marriage as a broken and rebellious teenager. I was insecure and unsure of who I was or what I wanted. I thought marriage would fix me. I expected Niki to “complete me.” Though I wouldn’t have articulated it quite this way, ultimately, I wanted her to be my savior. That is a weight that no spouse can bear. So, unmet expectations left me jaded and miserable.
Because of my Christian convictions, I knew divorce was not an option. I was determined to keep my vows and stay together with my wife, regardless of how miserable we might be. One day, though, I realized that my vows went beyond merely staying together; the covenant I made before God and Niki included promises to love and cherish my wife and work with her to make our marriage a joy. That’s when things began to change.
Hollywood teaches us that love sustains the marriage covenant. In other words, as long as I “feel” loving, the marriage will remain intact. The problem with that perspective is that feelings come and go. A marriage held together by feelings is destined to fail and fail quickly. The Biblical view is that the covenant upholds the love, not the love that upholds the covenant. Detrich Bønhoeffer, a 20th-century pastor and theologian, wrote the following to a young married couple: “It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.” When you don’t feel particularly loving, we must remember the marriage covenant.
So what do you do when you don’t experience feelings of love for your spouse? Are you destined for a marriage of misery? No. The Biblical mandate for love is action-oriented. C.S. Lewis rightly asserted that feelings of love would follow acts of love. I have found this to be true. When I have those days when “that loving feeling” is absent, I try and do loving things for Niki; consequently, my feelings quickly change.
Niki and I have learned a lot over the last twenty-five years. Though it is not perfect, our marriage is now a great blessing instead of the burden it used to be. Marriage is a gift from God, resulting from his infinite wisdom and grace. Following are twenty-five rules for marriage, learned from the last twenty-five years. I hope the Lord uses them to encourage you in your marriage.
1) Take the word ‘divorce’ out of your vocabulary.
Divorce has, tragically, become trivial in our culture. Many go into the marriage covenant with the attitude of “if it doesn’t work out, we will part ways.” Consequently, there is no security, which robs husbands and wives of the ability to be truthful. If my marriage can end at any time, I cannot possibly be honest with my spouse; when issues arise, I cannot confront her without fearing the covenant will end. On the other hand, when divorce is NOT an option, I will experience the freedom of being able to speak the truth in love without compromising the security of my most intimate earthly relationship.
2) Never let your children come between you and your spouse.
Your allegiance is first and foremost to your spouse; children need to see the love and devotion mom and dad have for each other, and they will be all the better for it. When making parenting decisions, stand together as a husband and wife. Do not let your children manipulate one parent against another. Your children will move out one day; if your lives have revolved around your kids for eighteen years, you and your spouse will not know what to do with each other. Your first allegiance must be to your spouse (obviously, the Lord comes before him/her).
3) Don’t argue to “win battles,” argue to solve problems.
When two imperfect people tie the knot, conflict is inevitable. When disagreements occur, you have two choices: One, you can argue to win (which means your spouse is left unhappy and the best solution is not implemented), or two, you discuss the situation to actually solve the problem (which means considering you might be wrong). Merely desiring “to win” means, in the end, neither you nor your spouse win.
4) Love demands confrontation; don’t sweep things under the rug.
It seems a noble thing to let issues go, but noble it is not. Not addressing issues only causes them to grow and fester to the point where hearts become hardened and bitter. Discuss issues before they become unbearable.
5) Have regular, meaningful conversations.
Life is busy; it is easy to discuss daily plans while neglecting meaningful conversations. Remember the days before you were married, when you and your spouse would spend hours on the phone, talking about everything in the world? That conversation should only magnify and deepen when you become married. Consider setting aside ten minutes a day to connect conversationally.
6) Put the darn cell phones down.
Cellphones have been one of the leading causes of the aforementioned lack of conversation. The results would be astounding if couples spent a fraction of the time spent on media connecting with their spouses. Consider having media free time for a specific period each day.
7) Go on a date with your spouse every week.
I know that the lack of money and the demands of young children make this rule seem impossible, but it is well worth the effort. The dates do not have to be elaborate. Consider a simple candlelight dinner at home if going out is not feasible. And put down the darn cell phone.
8) Daily pray and study Scripture together.
For marriage to be what God intended, a husband and wife must be close to the Lord. They must grow together spiritually. Take time every day to study and discuss the Scriptures together. Daily pray for one another. At first, this will be difficult and awkward, but stick with it, and it will get easier.
9) Comb your hair and put on some nice clothes; just because you’ve hooked him or her doesn’t mean you should now let yourself go.
I’ve seen men and women who, while dating, go to extreme lengths to look like models for their significant other. Then they get married, and it’s like all care for their appearance is thrown out the window. I am not suggesting that you can never wear sweats, but goodness gracious, comb your hair and take some pains with your looks at home at least a few times a week.
10) Speak well of your spouse in front of your children and others.
Our kids need to hear us speak well of our spouses. We must guard against making one-off comments out of frustration. Your spouse will love it when you speak encouraging words about him or her in front of others.
11) Carefully guard your words when angry; you cannot take them back.
When angry, it is best to be slow to speak and quick to listen (James 1:19). How easy it is to spout off hurtful words in moments of frustration. Guard your words carefully; I don’t care what the old secular proverb says: words do hurt.
12) Find a shared hobby you are both passionate about and enjoy it together.
I know that opposites attract, but it is helpful and necessary to share some hobbies in life. Search hard to find something you and your spouse can both be passionate about, such as hiking, antique shopping, house projects, etc., and carve out time to enjoy that activity together.
13) Stay out of debt!
Statistics show that one of the top causes of divorce is financial issues. Other than your mortgage, avoid debt at all costs. If you do not have the cash for it, you do not need it.
14) Hang out with other Christian couples.
Doing life with other Christian couples will encourage you in your marriage. God made us to do life together. Consider finding a Christian couple in the same season of life as you and your spouse, and hang out with them regularly.
15) Don’t question whether you married the right person.
If you are married to that person, he/she is the right person. Enough said.
16) Address issues before they become unbearable.
“Small” issues left unaddressed tend to fester and grow, often to the point where they become unmanageable. Nip them in the bud.
17) Live healthy lives. Your physical well-being impacts every other aspect of your life.
Because of the stress and busyness of ministry, I put my health on the back burner for years. I frequented drive-thrus and rarely worked out. Consequently, I was miserable, and my misery bled over into my marriage. Now, I make my health a priority. I work out several times weekly and attempt to eat as healthy as possible. My wife and I enjoy exercising together. My marriage is the better for it.
18) Do ministry together.
Serving others together is exceptionally life-giving. Consider helping in church outreaches, leading a small group together, volunteering at a homeless shelter, or using your God-given gifts in another way.
19) Faithfully Attend church together
Keep Sundays, the Lord’s Day, sacred. Attend worship service together every week. Consider discussing the sermon after church to see how you and your spouse can apply it to your lives.
20) Act loving, even when you don’t feel loving.
As I said earlier, feelings tend to follow actions. When you don’t feel particularly loving, do loving things for your spouse. This is not disingenuous. The Bible implores us to actions of love, regardless of how we feel.
21) Pick your battles; not every issue is on which you should die.
I am not contradicting my earlier warning to handle even minor issues when they arise. But, many times, issues are not issues at all. A good question to ask before addressing any concern is, “Is this a real issue, or am I just being immature?”. Answer honestly.
22) Laugh together, weep together, celebrate together.
Enjoy life with your spouse. Have fun together, lament together, and celebrate one another’s victories. Who do you share distressing or joyful news with first? That person should be your spouse.
23) Honor your father and mother without letting them dictate your marriage. Leave and cleave.
Moms and dads can have a difficult time letting their children go. Often, they can be quite overwhelming. Learn to honor your parents while also letting them know that you and your spouse have your own lives. As a side note, never speak negatively of your spouse to your parents. You will get over the frustrations with your husband or wife; your parents may not.
24) Give your spouse specific words of appreciation and encouragement.
Do not assume that your spouse “knows how you feel.” Frequently offer words of encouragement. And don’t let your inspiration be general; make it specific (e.g., “you are a great cook”).
25) Work intently on reflecting Christ to others through your marriage.
According to Ephesians 5, the ultimate purpose of marriage is to reflect Christ’s love for the church. Keep that mission in mind. How is your marriage reflecting Christ’s love and faithfulness to the world? That’s worth considering.
May your marriage be full of joy!